Australia’s draw for the 2014 World Cup places them in the widely accepted ‘Group of Death’, alongside the two finalists from 2010 and the exciting, up and coming ‘dark horses’, Chile.
Along with their recent success on the international stage, the defending World and European champions have a clear and discernible approach, hoarding possession to near-unprecedented levels and suffocating opponents with their short passing. They’ll play 4-3-3, with the wingers coming inside, but there’s widespread debate about whether the format of the midfield should be a single pivot, with Sergio Busquets, or a more defensively minded double pivot, with Busquets alongside Xabi Alonso. Of the 32 teams at the tournament, they have perhaps the most distinct style, rarely averaging less than 60% of possession in games – Australia’s chances against them will come on the counter-attack, and will primarily test their defensive structure rather than their ability to retain the ball.
Spain’s key strength is their stability – a remarkable turnaround from their inconsistent reputation at previous World Cups. Coach Vicente Del Bosque has been keen to foster a settled, ‘family’ environment in the squad, and there’ll be little changes from the side that triumphed in South Africa. That said, this is a strange period for Spain – a time, when, fuelled by their capitulation to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final, there have been widespread calls for regeneration. There is the sneaking suspicion that midfield metronome Xavi might be on the decline, while there’s still uncertainty at the back given that the domineering Carlos Puyol is no longer regularly available.
Upfront, there is the perennial issue of the centre forward – Del Bosque has switched between traditional number 9s such as Roberto Soldado and Fernando Torres and more unorthodox choices such as Cesc Fabregas and David Silva upfront. The recent controversy surrounding Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa might put an end to that debate – having been eligible for both nationalities, the striker chose Spain over Brazil and given his recent fine form for club, is surely a first choice. He would bring a more physical, rugged approach – he works the channels excellently and holds the ball up brilliantly.
Meanwhile, unless they elect for a more direct wide forward like Pedro or Jesus Navas, Spain’s other major source of penetration, rather strangely, comes from left-back. Del Bosque tends to pack his attack with playmakers such as Silva, Fabregas and Andres Iniesta, who come inside into positions between the lines and look to receive passes to feet. It’s vital, then, that Jordi Alba overlaps energetically down the flank, as he offers an additional, unexpected attacking threat in behind. He provided a string of impressive, influential performances in the Confederations Cup, and his well-taken goal against Italy in the Euro 2012 final is an excellent illustration of his importance, and Australia’s right-winger will have an important job nullifying his threat.
It’s important to consider, however, the timing of Australia’s clash with the defending champions. As the third match in the group, it’s possible the favourites will have already qualified, thus making the prospect of facing a second string Spain likely – although with the likes of Juan Mata, Alvaro Negredo and Javi Martinez likely to feature in a reserve team, it doesn’t make the challenge easier.
The fact that in three games the Netherlands have never beaten Australia should give Ange Postecoglou some hope but this remains an enormously difficult challenge for the Socceroos. The reputation of the Dutch has swung rather wildly in their past two tournaments: a fine run to the final in South Africa was succeeded by a shocking group-stage exit at Euro 2012. That failed campaign, which saw them finish bottom of their group with zero points, brought to the surface many of the public’s concerns at their shift towards a more cautious, reactive style under Bert Van Majwik – a marked contrast from the flowing, fluid style we’re traditionally accustomed to from the Dutch, and the approach that Australia drew much inspiration from when overhauling their footballing programs.
Indeed, with Guus Hiddink and Pim Verbeek, the Dutch influence runs deep in Australian football. The appointment of Louis Van Gaal has seen a shift back towards their usual style and it was surprising that their 17 match unbeaten run under the new coach received little attention, because it was indicative of a new found harmony absent from in recent years.
With the likes of young, technical midfielders Kevin Strootman, Jordy Clasie, Jonathon de Guzman and Rafael Van der Vaart now filling the midfield berths, rather than the more destructive pairing of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong that Van Gaal’s predecessor preferred, there is now a greater emphasis on ball retention, along with more of a focus on width – although both wingers, Jermain Lens and Arjen Robben on the left and right respectively, always look to cut inside.
While the likes of Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Van der Vaart remaining key players in attack, Van Gaal’s greatest area of regeneration has been in the defence – for those who have not seen the Netherlands in qualification nor much of the Eredivisie, the personnel that comprise the back four will be hugely unknown quantities. Van Gaal is yet to decide on a settled centre-back partnership but Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Ron Vlaar (of Aston Villa) are all clever, ball-playing defenders who defend very ‘proactively’, pushing high up the pitch and inevitably leaving space in behind.
It has to be remembered the World Cup is still seven months away, and having used 34 players in qualification, it’s clear he’s still looking for his favoured first-choice side. Indeed, despite a fine qualification campaign results-wise, the overwhelming feeling was that the Netherlands are disjointed and not quite the sum of their parts, although they still feature two outstanding individuals in Van Persie and Robben.
Forty-two years after meeting in the 1974 World Cup, Chile and Australia clash once more, although stylistically, the South American side have changed dramatically. Marcelo Biesla’s four year reign was key – as you would expect, the wild, eccentric coach implemented his favoured hard-running, high-tempo style on the team, giving them a strong identity that has since been carried on by current boss Jorge Sampaoli. Claudio Borghi, Biesla’s successor, briefly introduced a more pragmatic approach, but Sampaoli has struck a better balance between the philosophies, mixing the side’s distinctive lighting-fast counter-attacks and heavy pressing with calmer periods of possession.
That said, Chile are still naive, and against the stronger sides in the group their eye-pleasing approach may prove naive. Against, Australia, though, it should be a storm of pace and power – Arturo Vidal does an excellent job breaking forward from the midfield to support the front three. One of the key lessons from Sampaoli’s impressive tenure at club side Universidad de Chile was that although he retained an attacking trident at all times, the defensive base could freely switch between a back three and back four. In formation terms, Chile will probably be the most exciting side at the tournament.
In this regard, Vidal is vital. He is a stunningly good all-rounder, a remarkably composed penalty taker and incredibly versatile – he featured at centre-back in Juventus’s recent Serie A match against Livorno, although he’s clearly at his best as the most advanced of a midfield three, breaking forward powerfully into dangerous penalty-box positions. Marcelo Diaz and Gary Medel sit slightly deeper to accommodate this – the latter is more physical and breaks up play powerfully, while Diaz is a clever, two-footed playmaker who sets the tempo of Chile’s attacks intelligently with his measured distribution.
With many fans calling for Biesla to be appointed after the sacking of Holger Osieck, it’s clear Chile’s biesla-istic style appeals to the aesthetic of Socceroos fans. There is a certain romance to the side – Sampaoli’s declaration that “I believe that the only way to succeed is by uniting players with a love of playing….you try to inspire in them a love of the shirt derived of enjoyment, not obligation,” is certainly stirring, but there is very much a naivety to their approach, and although their attacks will be a blur of speed and agility, they will certainly leave themselves open at the back.
Ange Postecoglou was clearly delighted when speaking after the draw was made – he spoke of great excitement at “the footballing challenges”, and certainly, with his mantra as the new Socceroos coach to implement a more positive, proactive approach, on paper, this is the most attractive group at the tournament. The World Cup group stage in recent years has become something of a conservative middle ground, as sides seek ‘not to lose’ – but the very nature of each team’s system in Group B means every game will likely be open, attacking football. That tends to favour those with stronger individuals – in short, there’s no doubting the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead.